Wednesday, July 25, 2012

“The Night the Cooksville Opera House Burned Down” (Part Two) By Larry Reed

On December 5, 1893, the Cooksville Opera House (and Meat Market) burned down. It was the village’s first big loss to fire. The nearby Evansville Enterprise newspaper published a tongue-in-cheek story about the loss, which did not amuse the Cooksvillians. According to the newspaper account, the red glare of the flames lit up the sign of a nearby businessman, so that the letters stood out as follows: E M STEBBINS dealer in Soft and hard coal, ice cream, wood, lime, cement, perfumery, nails, putty, spectacles, and tomato catsup, chocolate caramels, hides, tallow and maple syrup, fine gold jewelry, silverware, salt, glue, codfish and gents neck wear, full line of patent medicines, diseases of horses and children a specialty. The “inflammatory” news article continued. “The Cooksville Hook and Ladder Company got to the fire and were soon ready for action, but refused to enter the burning building. It was discovered that some valuables had been left in the office of VanPatten & Co.’s Packing establishment. T’was a thrilling sight to see Mr. VanPatten as he entered the burning building and in the full glare of the devouring element rushed out with a link of bolognia [sic] and a summer ulster. This was greeted by a wild applause from the bystanders, during which the Hook and Ladder company fell over each other and added to the horror of the scene by a mad burst of pale blue profanity. Twice Mr. VanPatten was seen to shudder, after which he went home and filled out a blank which he immediately forwarded to the insurance company. Just as the town seemed doomed the fire company came rushing down the street wrapped in heavy rubber suits, and physical calm, and after discussing the valuation of the building for a time began to twist the tail of the fire fiend. It was a thrilling sight as Mr. Jack Robinson (foreman of company A) ascended one of the ladders and at the height of seven feet from the ground fell off again, and was encored by the large and aristocratic audience. This morning a space 28 feet long and 16 feet wide, where but yesterday, all was joy, prosperity, and beauty, is covered over with blackened ruins. The Red Wolf Comedy company was just closing a four week’s engagement in the opera house and sustained a heavy loss. Bertie Love, a member of the company, lost his entire wardrobe which consisted of a very fine gauze undershirt tatooed [sic] with red paint which he valued very highly and one which he always wore in his great scalp-dance act. We understand that a movement is on foot to give a literary and musical entertainment to raise funds for those who suffered the heaviest losses, at which the ex-Prohibition Glee club has consented to sing “When the Robins Nest Again” and his honor the village justice will deliver a fitting address for the occasion. A.G. Franklin and William Johnson will give a joint talk on the care of Stockers and fall Shoats, which no doubt will be interesting. Ellen Love has promised to recite “Ostler Joe” a selection that never fails to offend the best people everywhere. D.M. Johnson will recite the beautiful poem entitled “Queen of the Meadow” which is a nice thing when recited well, and is also good when taken internally.” Cooksville folks were not amused by the newspaper article. A week later, the following rebuttal by Cooksville was printed in the Evansville newspaper: “We notice an article in the Evansville Enterprise of last week relative to our late fire, while it may strike some people as being funny, we think the majority will unite with us in saying that the person who wrote it is utterly devoid of any feeling of sympathy and seems rather inclined to make a joke of what is a great loss and misfortune to others… If it was the writer’s intention to slur and hurt the feelings of all parties concerned, he failed. Although they lost by the fire all their property, they will yet be able to recover without having their horse taken for board or their clothes attached for debt.” With the loss of the second-floor Opera House and the first-floor Meat Market in 1893, three other buildings remained as venues for village performances, entertainments, parties and other gatherings: the Cooksville Schoolhouse, the Cooksville Congregational Church and the Masonic Lodge above the General Store. And other stores, often the front rooms of residences, would serve as meat markets in the absence of the one destroyed by fire. Fortunately, other fires have been very rare in Cooksville—although a few years later in 1896 the new Norwegian Lutheran Church would be struck by lightning and burn to the ground. [Excerpt from “The Village of Cooksville: A Chronicle of the Town that Time Forgot,” by Larry Reed]

Monday, July 2, 2012

“The Night the Cooksville Opera House Burned Down” (Part One) by Larry Reed

The night of December 5, 1893, was a night of loss and lament in Cooksville—the Opera House burned down! The Opera House building was the first important building to be lost¬¬¬¬ in Cooksville. Known as Van Vleck’s Hall (it was enlarged by the man who owned the Van Vleck Implement Factory nearby), the building housed Van Patten’s and Newkirk’s Meat Market on the main floor and the Cooksville Opera House on the second floor. Erected about 1845 as a merchandise store, it was one of the oldest landmarks and served multiple purposes on the northern corner of Main and Dane streets, east of the present General Store At the time of the fire, the second-floor Opera House was being used by Dr. Red Wolf for his lectures and entertainments. He had a large display of rare coins, medicines, “curiosities” and “paraphernalia,” as well as musical instruments used by himself and his two assistants. Not one article of his was rescued from the devastating fire. The neighboring Evansville Enterprise newspaper didn’t think much of the little village’s fiery disaster. In fact, the Enterprise thought the loss was an occasion for humor and took surprisingly great pleasure in reporting the “Cooksville Conflagration,” with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, which did not please Cooksvillians. Excerpts from the newspaper story illustrate this lame, late-19th century attempt at humor: “The Opera House block, better known as the Cooksville auditorium, was totally destroyed by fire this morning. The building was a large two-story structure on the corner of Main street and Waucoma avenue. The fire was supposed to have originated in the boiler room of VanPatten & Newkirks Lard Rendering establishment, which occupied the first floor of the entire building. The Opera Hall covered the second story. “Fire Warden Whaley was first to discover the blaze, and after partaking of an early breakfast promptly called out the entire department, but the fire was beyond control before they got there with the “Invigorated Squirt” ready for action. “With a degree of forethought worthy of better cause, Mr. E.T. Stoneburner suggested the hook and ladder company, an organization of which everyone seemed to be justly proud. Some delay ensued in trying to find the janitor of the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1’s building, but at last he was secured after he had gone home for the key. Mr. Stoneburner then ran swiftly down the street to awaken the foreman, but after he had dressed himself carefully and inquired anxiously about the fire, he said he was the foreman since the 2nd of April. On the streets was all confusion. The hoarse cry of fire had been taken up by the excited crowd and passed from one to another until it had swollen into a dull roar. The cry of fire in a small town is always a grand sight. As the devouring elements burst through the roof of the building, the spectators whose early education had not been neglected could plainly read the sign of our esteemed fellow-townsman, E.M. Stebbins, which was lit up by the red glare of the flames so that the letters stood out as follows: Meantime the fire fiend continued to rise up and ever and anon on its hind feet and lick up chicken crate after chicken crate, in close proximity to the doomed building.” (End of Part One. To be continued.)